Few herbs are more generous than the humble nettle. Inconspicuously, it assumes a modest corner in the garden: untended areas, half in the shade, perhaps near the compost, where the soil is rich in nitrogen. Inconspicuous that is, until one happens to brush by it carelessly - then we suddenly become painfully aware of it.
Nettle is a warrior plant, armed with tiny needles that cover him from top to toe, leaves, stems and all. The lightest touch will break off the needle's tops and release formic acid, which is responsible for creating that familiar sensation of having been stung by a hundred little syringes.
Nettles don't so much protect themselves with this weaponry - they are extremely hardy and notoriously difficult to exterminate. Even concerted efforts will have a hard time eradicating an established nettle patch. No, nettles are warriors for the earth, they protect disturbed land and assimilate nutrients in the soil. They cleanse and heal the soil and ward off intruders with their stinging needles as best they can.
Gardeners often consider them a nuisance, for nettles can spread like wildfire and their rhizomes are seemingly endless. A small part left behind in the soil soon gives birth to a new colony. Nettles don't have pretty flowers and are apt to hurt unaware, innocent by-passers, so gardeners tend to want to get rid of them - by any means they can. They hack and hoe the ground to pull them out, leaving the soil bare and exposed to the elements. If that does not work, they launch chemical warfare on their garden ecology with round-up and other 'herbicides' to kill all the innocent herbs and weeds that nature supplies for our well-being. Only specially bred 'hybrids' stand a chance to survive.
Appearance can be so deceptive, and plants are no different in that respect. While nettles themselves neither smell nor look very attractive, they make excellent companion plants in the garden. They increase the essential oil content of plants that grow nearby, particularly those of the mint family, while also making them more resilient.
The humblest plants conceal the greatest treasures. Nettles may sting, but even this unpleasant effect is not necessarily a bad thing. The Romans respected nettles highly, precisely for this very quality. They used them for flagellation as a treatment for chronic arthritis and rheumatism. We don't tend to appreciate such heroic therapies anymore, though reportedly this particular one was quite effective. Nowadays we want all our medicine to be sugar coated and looking like sweets, never mind their effectiveness, or, for that matter, their side effects...
Nettles are one of the earliest plants to come up in the spring. Their healing and cleansing qualities don't just apply to the soil, they also purify the body, helping it to discharge metabolic wastes, such as uric acid crystals. A by-product of protein metabolism, these crystals lodge in the joints, where they can become extremely painful. Nettles are diuretic; they flush toxins out and wash the system from the inside. In the olden days each year around February/ March people would undergo a body-cleansing period- the lent, when they abstained from meat and heavy foods. They would eat spring herbs, gentle tonics and bitters that would rid the body from the residues of several months of sedentary winter habits - heavy foods and too little exercise - to 'cleanse the blood' and make it 'thin'.
Nettles are one of the most useful tonic herbs available to this end. They are rich in iron, calcium and vitamin A and C. They gently stimulate and tone the body, affecting purification without catharsis. They remove waste matter and replenish the body with nutrients. Therapeutically a tea of nettle tops can be used as a blood cleansing diuretic that also stimulates the formation of red blood cells. This tea can be taken safely by anybody, though it may be particularly supportive for women during puberty, menopause or pregnancy. Nettles also lower the blood sugar level and are thus indicated for diabetes 2 sufferers.
The forager will not just appreciate their excellent therapeutic qualities, though, but also the fact that they make an abundant and nutritious spring vegetable, which can be used like spinach and other leafy greens. It is best to mix them with other spring herbs such a dandelion or chickweed, or mash them with potatoes and onions. They have a pleasant earthy flavour, adaptable to many dishes. Their versatility is limited only by chef's imagination.. In the 17th century nettle pudding (not the sweet sort), porridge and soup were all common:
Wash 1lb of nettles, pour boiling water over them and leave them covered and submerged for about an hour. Drain and cut the nettles. Cream 100g of butter with a little salt and pepper, 4 egg yolks, one onion cut fine and two cups of breadcrumbs. Add the nettles to this creamy mass. Beat the egg whites stiff and carefully lift it under the doughy nettle mass. Pour into a buttered dish and cook in a double boiler for one hour.
To 1 gallon of young Nettle tops, thoroughly washed, add 2 good-sized leeks or onions, 2 heads of broccoli or small cabbage, or Brussels sprouts, and 1/4 lb. of rice. Clean the vegetables well; chop the broccoli and leeks and mix with the Nettles. Place all together in a muslin bag, alternately with the rice, and tie tightly. Boil in salted water, long enough to cook the vegetables, the time varying according to the tenderness or other vise of the greens. Serve with gravy or melted butter. These quantities are sufficient for six persons.
Mrs Grieves, A Modern Herbal
Country people would also make nettle beer, which was not only quite tasty and refreshing, but also wholesome as a remedy for arthritic and gouty pains.
"...a pleasant country drink made of nettle-tops, dandelions, goosegrass and ginger, boiled and strained. Brown sugar was added, and while still warm a slice of toasted bread, spread with yeast, was placed on top, and the whole kept warm for six or seven hours. Finally, the scum was removed, a teaspoon of cream of tartar was added and the beer was bottled."
Lesley Gordon, A Country Herbal
The Nettle Beer made by cottagers is often given to their old folk as a remedy for gouty and rheumatic pains, but apart from this purpose it forms a pleasant drink. It may be made as follows: Take 2 gallons of cold water and a good pailful of washed young Nettle tops, add 3 or 4 large handsful of Dandelion, the same of Clivers (Goosegrass) and 2 OZ. of bruised, whole ginger. Boil gently for 40 minutes, then strain and stir in 2 teacupsful of brown sugar. When lukewarm place on the top a slice of toasted bread, spread with 1 OZ. of compressed yeast, stirred till liquid with a teaspoonful of sugar. Keep it fairly warm for 6 or 7 hours, then remove the scum and stir in a tablespoonful of cream of tartar. Bottle and tie the corks securely. The result is a specially wholesome sort of ginger beer. The juice of 2 lemons may be substituted for the Dandelion and Clivers. Other herbs are often added to Nettles in the making of Herb Beer, such as Burdock, Meadowsweet, Avens Horehound, the combination making a refreshing summer drink.
Mrs. Grieves, A Modern Herbal
So, what is the trick to picking nettles without being stung to bits? Well, the easiest way is to wear rubber gloves while picking and preparing nettles. Some people develop a skill at plucking nettles without getting stung. Children sometimes play 'initiation games', daring one another to pick a nettle with bare hands. The trick is to grab the nettle with care and determination and avoid accidental brushing. It does require some practice, but it works. While the stinging at first can be quite annoying, once it starts subsiding the affected parts seem to become sensitised to subtle energies. Dowsers sometimes use nettles to sensitise perception in their hands. Personally I always pick my nettles with bare hands and quite like the tingling effect and the way it makes my hands more sensitive to the plants and the soil with which I am working. However, people who have a tendency for allergies should be careful and avoid direct exposure to nettles since their 'venom' also contains histamine, which can cause allergic reactions. Just as important, nettles intended for internal use should only be picked in spring as they develop an abundance of little crystals later in the season, which can be harmful.
Once the nettles are brought home and cleansed under running water they can be put in a bowl and covered with hot water for about twenty minutes, which greatly reduces their stinging power. Don't discard the water though, you can use it as tea or simply add it to your soup instead of regular water. Or, try it as a hair rinse. Nettles have long been rumoured useful for promoting hair growth. Though some may think this a mere remnant of the old doctrine of signatures ('what is hairy must be good for the hair'), it does actually seem effective not only in making hair grow more prolifically, but also to strengthen it.
Take a big handful of nettles and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain and allow to cool. Bottle and keep the liquid in a cool place (e.g. in the fridge). Use this liquid as a final rinse after washing your hair. Don't wash out, but rather comb it out once the hair is dry.
Nettle is a very fibrous plant and once upon a time it was actually planted as a crop for making fabric, rope and paper. Its fibres were separated and softened so they could be spun into a yarn and woven into any kind of cloth, which was equalled only by hemp and flax. Nettles have a stronger fibre than flax, yet are not as harsh as hemp.
Some people claim that nettles act as an aphrodisiac and 'aid the venery'. For this use the seeds are especially in demand.
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